Six things to do in Chiang Mai
You’ve gotta love Chiang Mai. I’ve lived both inside those ancient, tumbling walls and outside them on the shiny new Nimmam Road. I covered almost every city street, rode up Doi Suthep and took buses to Pai and Chiang Rai. After all that, here’s my take on the best things to do in Chiang Mai:
1 – Rent a Scooter
In my opinion, it’s the most important thing to do in Chiang Mai.
First I should say that it can be dangerous and you should think seriously about it. Taking it seriously should mean you manage to avoid limb loss and death.
I’m not usually a thrill seeker. Number 2 isn’t going to recommend that you eat a local snake or bungee from an old wooden bridge. I just know that mixing that warm Thai air with bike freedom in a magical land like Chiang Mai is a match made in Buddhist heaven…..should that be in Buddhist Nirvana??
Sorry, Religious Studies wasn’t my strong point. But you’re not here for that so let’s not worry. My point is that done right and sensibly, adding a bike to your time in Chiang Mai will enhance what you can do 100-fold. Everyone has a bike, so the roads, shops and restaurants are all designed for you to easily pull in, unclip your helmet and shake out your hair, movie-style!
Also because this is a proper city, not just a resort town, things are sprawled out over a big distance, so having a bike makes exploring so much easier.
There are loads of places you can rent bikes from around the walls of Chiang Mai.
If possible I always like getting them from the hostel or hotel I’m staying at. Maybe because it’s one less person to hand my passport over to. But to be honest I’ve never had problems renting bikes all over Southeast Asia. One of the charms of this part of the world is the people. You’re unlikely to find any genuinely mean people along your way. But always be vigilant, there’s always a chance you’ll encounter the black sheep.
I got my Honda Zoomer from here and the service was perfect. I told them that I’d broken the visor on my helmet and they told me not to worry about it.
If you prefer to get as much as possible booked up in advance, check out Bike Bookings. They let you pay for it online and give you insurance and guarantees. It’s the sensible way to do it.
The only thing you should do is get yourself an International Driving Permit. In the UK they cost a whopping £5, so no excuses. It will cost you more than that when you get stopped at a police checkpoint and they tell you to pay a fine (cough bribe cough).
2 – Take that bike up & down Doi Suthep
Doi Suthep is the lonely mountain that looks over Chiang Mai from the East. And climbing it is the most fun you can have on two wheels. Actually, I can’t say that for certain. Riding from Kuta to Ubud in Bali probably takes the crown for that. But that was insane!
For the most peaceful fun on two wheels, Doi Suthep wins. The mountain road starts near the zoo. But please don’t go there, zoos aren’t entertainment, they’re prisons, so ride on past and start your ascent.
The road is AMAZING!!
It’s probably the best surface for riding in the whole city. I imagine that has something to do with the fact that the King has a palace up there. Although he usually takes the easy helicopter route to the top, some of his less important dignitaries are given the smooth tarmac route instead.
I’m pretty sure of this because if you keep climbing after the palace level you have to deal with potholes and dust-a-plenty. But continue you should as you’d miss meeting the hill-tribe people in the beautiful Hmong Village at the top if you decided to call it a day at the palace.
Of course, you also need to stop off and visit the gold-plated wonderland that is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It’s one hell of a shiny temple that gives you hazy views across the whole city. Just remember that you must cover your knees, shoulders and the bits in between to get into the temple and the palace too.
When you’re ready to head back down to sea level I have just one piece of advice. Go easy on the brakes!!
3 – Eat Khao Soi
This is THE food thing you have to do in Chiang Mai!!
Thai food is the undisputed champion of world cuisine. It is. Khao Soi is the unknown northern Thai speciality that is the king among its dishes.
Crispy noodles cover soft noodles.
The flavour bounces between spicy, sweet and sour and it all costs less than a tube of Pringles. We only hunted out the veggie versions and without doubt, the best can be found at Aum Restaurant. Go there. Eat Khao Soi. Thank me.
4 – See elephants….the right way!!
Whether you’re a self-confessed animal lover or not, you can join the hidden cruelty dots together when it comes to elephant experiences in Thailand.
Any experience that allows riding, bathing or anything similar is very likely to be orchestrated in a world of silent fear for the elephant. It took a lot of training (cough torture cough) to get the elephant to that position and paying to visit only fuels it.
It is annoyingly difficult to find a place that actually lives up to what a sanctuary should be. But there are some out there. Please take some extra time to find them as instead of funding elephant torture you can actually fund elephant rehabilitation.
To read more about this problem check out this post by my fellow traveller The Wondering Wandering Vegan, it’s far more detailed and educational than what I’ve said.
We managed to find the perfect place to see Asian elephants happily doing what they wanted without humans getting up in their faces or clambering onto their backs. Elephant Valley Chiang Rai was an amazing experience. Even though some of our time there was spent cleaning up their shit and digging glass out of the ground in a newly bought extension.
Unfortunately due to COVID, they’ve had to close due to a lack of tourists. A real shame. Luckily they have another sanctuary in Cambodia and I think most elephants were able to relocate over there.
5 – Visit the night bazaar
It’s on every night so you don’t have an excuse to miss it. Head to the Red Lion pub and you can’t miss it. Both sides of the street are lined with stalls. There are so many that the products available repeat on average every 15-20 metres.
Maybe you didn’t want some silky Muay Thai shorts the last three opportunities you had but the fourth time is too big an opportunity to miss. Frankly, the market is what you’d expect in regard to what you can buy, the selling point is the buzz. That and the street food market.
Now we’re talking.
Amazing Asian food oozes out of vans and tents sprawled over this old wasteland. Wooden crates and metal barrels are all the furniture you need to eat, drink and enjoy live music.
One tip, if you’re on a budget, head over to the 7-Eleven opposite and buy your own beers, it’s allowed!
6 – Get a pedalo on the lake, if you can!
Here’s another one that’s made possible by having a bike. Granted you could get a taxi out here, but getting one back might not be so easy. Plus you get to ride your bike on the deserted roads around a beautiful lake.
There are loads of private shady huts dotted around the lake for you to use and dive in from, and of course where there are people there are refreshment huts so you won’t go thirsty.
The jewel in the crown wasn’t the bike riding, it was the pedalos. Swan or flamingo was the question. What better way to enjoy the afternoon heat than in a shaded pedalo on the muggy water of Huay Tueng Tao Lake?
Sounds good right? I sure thought so. I didn’t think I would be deemed unsuitable for such an activity.
At the point of paying, you have to weigh yourself before being allowed on. There I was, confidently stepping onto the scales, knowing I was in pretty good shape, only for the guy to say, with a smile on his face, “OK, you do not pass”.
And that was that. Apparently, 82kg is too heavy for a flamingo pedalo. Sad times for me. Giggles for everyone else who was watching.
So there you have it, 6 things to do in Chiang Mai. Enjoy, be safe, and eat Khao Soi.
Check out my other blog posts to get more info you can’t live without!
If you’re planning a trip to Pai too, you should check out my posts about that magical little town. You absolutely have to go tipsy tubing when you’re there.
Heading to Pai and want some accommodation tips?
If you’re on the lookout for some tips about where to stay in Pai, allow me to give you my four budget-based recommendations.
1 – Fancy Pants
If you’re feeling lavish then check out Reverie Siam Resort. Rooms are usually over £150 per night, which I know is crazy high for Pai, but hear me out. If you’re after something extra special and can afford it, you won’t regret treating yourself.
2 – Above Average Joe
If you prefer to place yourself in the middle you should head to Pai Vimaan Resort. This place comes in at around £40 per night and still gives a level of luxury compared to most places in Pai. It’s also located right in the middle of the town and is great to book trips from.
3 – Cheap But Private
If you’re like most of the travellers in Pai, you’re looking for cheap and cheerful. For that, I give you Villa De Pai. Rooms are often available for less than £10 per night and that’s for a private room with its own bathroom, fancy that!!
4 – Party Party
Finally, if you’re more of a social butterfly who travels from party hostel to party hostel, I know the place for you. That place is Bodega Pai Party Hostel. This place is for sociable travellers who like to party. Plus, as you’d expect with any good hostel, you can plan all the trips and travel you need from their reception.
Looking for more things to do in Pai?
If you’re hungry for more Pai travel tips you should check out my Ultimate Guide to Pai, Thailand.
About the author – The Sketchy Traveller
I’m not really a stickman, but it seems that I like portraying myself as one.
I’m an English guy who’s been travelling since 2017. I was never good at taking photos, sketching just seems to work better for me, and in my opinion, why do you want to see other people’s 4K videos and pictures of the world? Surely it’s better to see it for yourself. You get in touch through the contact page or Instagram.
I look forward to hearing from you.